Wednesday, May 29, 2024

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City council hears disappointing assessment: no “fast fix” for revitalizing Western Electric plant in east Burlington

25-year prognosis more likely

Burlington’s municipal leaders have arrived at the realization that it will take years, if not decades, to revive a long-dormant manufacturing plant that once served as the vital center of the city’s east side.

But the city’s higher ups have not given up hope in the eventual resurrection of this 22-acre complex, which is best known, even today, as the former home of the defense contractor Western Electric.

This mix of optimism and grudging acceptance was the conclusion that Burlington’s city council ultimately reached after an in-depth discussion about the site’s prospects during a monthly work session on Monday.

The council’s conversation that evening began with an overview of the facility’s history from Peter Bishop, the city’s director of economic development. During his presentation, Bishop recalled the plant’s origin as a Johnson Rayon facility in 1927 as well as its conversion to the production of military aircraft in World War II. He went on to recount the plant’s glory days under Western Electric, which used the facility to make ballistic missiles during the Cold War.

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Bishop added that the plant’s downfall began with the disarmament agreements struck during the presidency of Richard Nixon. He noted that the site saw a few more years of activity as a research and development lab for AT&T. He even identified it as the birthplace of the speakerphone – a distinction that nevertheless failed to halt the plant’s closure under Ma Bell’s successor Lucent Technologies.

Amid the succession of businesses that operated the facility, the site remained the property of the federal government until 2004. That fall, U.S. General Services Administration sold the plant along with its massive parking lot and a nearby railroad spur to a limited liability corporation for just over $1.5 million.

Bishop reminded the council that the plant’s operations have imbued the site with more than just a long, storied legacy.

  “Obviously, with all these different uses over a prolonged period of time, there has been some site contamination, most significantly to the ground water and the soils beneath the site.”

– Peter Bishop, Burlington director of economic development

“Obviously, with all these different uses over a prolonged period of time, there has been some site contamination,” he proceeded to stress, “most significantly to the ground water and the soils beneath the site.”

Bishop added that neither the federal government nor the corporations that leased the facility removed all of this lingering contamination before the site’s sale. As a result, the property has been designated as an EPA “Superfund” site – a label that places a whole host of limitations on the site’s future use.

Bishop noted that the deed to the property spells out a number of these usage restrictions, which apply even to something as simple as the installation of a new power pole on the property.

“You can’t just dig a hole in the site because of the impact on the soil and the vapor,” the city’s economic developer added. “There are actually a restriction in the deed that says you need permission before you break soil on the site.”

Bishop added that these regulatory hurdles and hoops currently rule out the site’s use for residential, commercial, or manufacturing activities – anything, in fact, other than storage.

Bishop nevertheless assured the council that there have been some ongoing efforts to clean up the property since its decommission. He acknowledged that this convoluted process involves everyone from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and even Alamance County’s health department. He also alluded to two sets of remediation studies, including an ongoing inquiry that the U.S. Army commissioned in 2021 to investigate the extent of any groundwater contamination.

Bishop went on to admit that these remediation activities are bound to continue for many years before the site gets a green light from state and federal regulators. He added that there’s little the city can do speed up this ponderous process.

“We’re sort of the last stop on the train,” he conceded. “We’re the ones who issue final permits and coordinate with the contractors after everyone of the other agencies has given the thumbs up to whatever work is required.”

Bishop’s report on the property ultimately left the city council a rather dismal view of the site’s short-term prospects for redevelopment.

“It’s such an intractable problem. This has been an issue since I was on the council in the 80s.”

– Burlington city council member Kathy Hykes

“This remediation, quite frankly, can take years,” declared councilman Bob Ward.

“It’s such an intractable problem,” agreed council member Kathy Hykes. “This has been an issue since I was on the council in the 80s.”

The grueling pace of the remediation process also gave Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler a grim outlook on other redevelopment projects in the same part of east Burlington.

“It’s going to be difficult for that area to develop anything positive until that piece is corrected, and that’s going to be a real heavy lift.”

– Burlington mayor Jim Butler

“It’s going to be difficult for that area to develop anything positive until that piece is corrected,” he said, “and that’s going to be a real heavy lift.”

The council’s overall sense of despondency was tempered somewhat by assistant city manager Nolan Kirkman, who mentioned “some success” that the city has recently had in improving the facility’s appearance. Kirkman recalled that city staff members have gotten the property owner to erect fences to address issues with vandalism, and to, at least, contemplate the installation of security cameras. He also alluded to some permitted demolition work that has occurred on the site.

The council’s mood was further brightened when the conversation turned to the site’s long-term prospects for redevelopment.

Butler, for one, pinned his hopes on the potential intervention of a developer who specializes in the renewal of contaminated industrial sites. Bishop conceded that the city has been in touch with some of these specialists – one of whom could very well be in a position to repurpose the property at some point in the future.

“So, if you don’t think it can be anything long-term,” the city’s economic developer added, “that’s not entirely true.”

The facility’s long-term prospects also seemed rosier to councilman Ronnie Wall, who predicted a 25-year horizon for the site’s redevelopment. Wall nevertheless added that this long view needs to be better articulated to the plant’s neighbors.

“I think we need to do a better job of communicating it to the residents around the facility,” he said, “to make sure that they understand.”

See other Burlington news this week:

City manager Hardin Watkins to retire next month, consult for six months afterwards:

City council approves new recycling rates that triple monthly charges to residents:

City council puts off consideration of nuclear resolution until March:

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